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Family Matters

And then came Alexa


One weekend morning not too long ago, as I readied myself for the day, the sound of sibling arguing rose to a level that was audible over the noise of my hair dryer. I found my two children bickering over domination of the Alexa-controlled living room speaker. “But Mooommm!” protested my son. “I was in here trying to listen to WWE wrestlers’ entrance songs, and she turned it off because she wants to hear Carrie Underwood! Not fair!” I suggested that since my son was there first, maybe his sister might show some courtesy, relocate to the adjacent playroom, and use the “Hey Google” activated speaker for her Carrie Underwood. This would most certainly not do, said my daughter, because after all, her brother listens to his music way too loud and it would just be pure sacrilege for “Real American” to drown out “Jesus Take the Wheel.”
I reminded my children that it was silly to fuss over one speaker in one room when the listening options in our household are quite abundant. I explained to them that their daddy and I pay good money for subscriptions to Spotify Premium, Amazon Music, and Sirius XM radio to avoid this very situation. I asked them, “Why, when we have six perfectly good speakers in our house, are you coming to blows over this one?” And, like most parents my age, I couldn’t resist a good “back in my day” lecture opportunity.
I explained to my 6- and almost 9-year-olds that they don’t even know how good they have it, musically speaking. I asked them if they knew that when I was a little girl, in the days before you could ask “Alexa,” “Hey Google” or “Echo” to play whatever song your heart desires from the comfort of the couch, you would actually have to get up to turn a radio dial, station by station, until something caught your ear. I recounted for them having to listen to my mom’s favorite album, “New Moon Shine” by James Taylor, on repeat for the duration of the three-hour road trip to my grandparents’ house.
My son asked why I didn’t just play on my iPad and use my headphones. They marveled as I told them about how when I was a kid, if I wanted to hear “The Sign” by Ace of Base, I would have to call in to the request line at Mix 101.5 and stay up for hours waiting to hear if the DJ would actually play my song. I played them samples of Raffi and Sharon, Lois, and Bram and told them that was what I was listening to when I was in kindergarten, not KidzBop covers of adult-themed pop songs.
I explained that in my childhood home, for many years, the six of us shared exactly one boombox that lived on a shelf in the kitchen. And if you wanted to listen to music on the go, you needed a lot more than AirPods and an iPhone. I tried to describe my Walkman portable cassette player and how you’d sometimes have to use a No. 2 pencil to rewind the tape. My Sony Discman with fancy Extra Skip Protection. My iPod Shuffle stocked with songs downloaded quite illegally with Napster (maybe I shouldn’t admit that in print). My collection of headphones with the bulky, foamy earpieces, uncomfortable plastic headbands, and cords that were perpetually knotted and tangled. My black Case Logic 224-disc capacity CD binder that traveled with me just about everywhere I went.
I told my children that they would never know the joyful anticipation of saving up birthday and allowance money and asking their mom for a ride to Paradise Records to buy their very own copy of a newly released Backstreet Boys CD. “Who are the Backstreet Boys?” asked my oldest.
My daughter ultimately relented and sulked upstairs, with “Fiiiine, I’ll just go listen to my music in my room on my speaker.” My son resumed elbow dropping the couch pillows to Hulk Hogan’s theme song, and I continued styling my hair in peace to Chris Stapleton tunes on our bathroom Echo speaker. As I brushed and curled, I thought about the music that I grew up with — my parents’ music that played on the family boombox from our kitchen shelf. Van Morrison. Carole King. The Eagles. Carly Simon. Fleetwood Mac. Jackson Browne. Bonnie Raitt. The Beach Boys. Alison Krauss and Union Station. Emmylou Harris. James Taylor.
When I was 8 years old, I probably would’ve given anything to be able to pop in wireless earbuds to not have to hear “Crazy Love” one more time. But what I didn’t know back then was that I was being exposed (by default) to some of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time. I can play those same songs today, and they will always take me right back to wonderful childhood memories. I realized how grateful I was for the music my parents shared with their kids.
When I think about it, the soundtrack to my childhood was pretty legendary, and music is forever.
“Alexa, play ‘Copperline’ by James Taylor, on all speakers.”